I saw the Queen twice during her lifetime. Once, when I was a boy, she passed in a dark Rolls-Royce near Buckingham Palace, her face in profile, like the stamp. The second time was when my father, who worked as a solicitor, was invited to a garden party at the Palace. The Queen hosted four of these a year, with roughly four thousand guests, for almost seventy years. As a family, we put on our best clothes and shuffled around the grounds. Those who had been chosen to meet the Queen were lined up, four or five abreast, and formed into a long, snaking column that meandered across the lawns. Midway through the party, Her Majesty materialized at the head of the column and devoured it as smoothly and as simply as if it were a piece of Battenberg cake.
“I have to be seen to be believed,” she was fond of saying. But seeing the Queen was not like seeing another famous person. It was less exciting, and more confirming. You waited; she appeared. The use of the phrase “to wait,” upon a sovereign or on a lord—to attend to their needs, to be a lady-in-waiting—dates from the fourteenth century. The Queen was waited on, and waited for, every moment of her life. The waiting is what separated her, and what joined more or less everybody else. We were unified in our exclusion. It is unclear how well the Queen understood this. Perhaps she understood enough not to try to understand. Her real love was horses.
The pageantry of royal death in the United Kingdom this week has its origins in power. In “Leviathan,” which he wrote toward the end of the English Civil War, Thomas Hobbes described sovereignty as “an artificial soul.” The terrible authority of kings lasted as long as their subjects felt protected. The ceremonies, the hats, the music, the bells, the ostentatious rehearsing and just-so quality of the Queen’s death and Charles’s accession all date from the last years of the nineteenth century, when royal power was changing from something overtly political into something more emotional and charismatic. It was George V, the Queen’s grandfather, who delivered the first Christmas Day broadcast, on the BBC, in 1932, and began to pencil the outline of the national meta-family, whose births, weddings, and funerals would become our own. The tradition of a monarch lying in state is a twentieth-century invention. It is a way for the population to pay its respect—to reaffirm its submission to an ancient and unequal way of doing things—and, in return, to claim a moment of history for ourselves.